The Trinity of Spring Foraging: Morels, Ramps & Watercress
By Jonnah Mellenthin Perkins | Photos By Jonnah Mellenthin Perkins 0
Spring on the farm is a time of new beginnings. I anticipate it all winter, longing for the structure and routine of our large CSA operation. With the farm buzzing with new energy, I often liken the pace to a runaway train. The farm is alive with field prep, seeding in the potting shed, and transplanting tens of thousands of plants into the ground. I spend the majority of my time managing hundreds of CSA memberships, leading off-farm outreach events, and doing farm clean-up to get ready for the birth of a new growing season. People often think that the farmer's life is calm, slow and uncomplicated—a simpler way of life. Ask any vegetable farmer about their work and most of them will not use any of these words to describe their farm.
By the time May rolls around, my head is spinning and I want to be close to food, in a slower way. I find myself being drawn to the woods and streams looking for wild plants to add to our seasonal vegetables. Each spring I wait for the perfect intersection of circumstances that bring me what I call the Trinity of Foraging. My three favorite wild foods are morels, watercress, and ramps. I eat them together in a perfect dish of earthy, ethereal delicateness that cannot be cultivated in a farm environment. I am not an expert forager, but I have learned where to look for these spring treasures.
Watercress grows in cool, slow, shallow streams. It has a distinct peppery flavor and can be eaten raw or cooked like a green. We have a beautiful stand of watercress on the farm but we did a clear harvest of the cress for our Spring CSA shares. So this year I called on my neighbor, Jeff, from Cress Spring Bakery for my watercress source. The kids and I hopped into the truck and drove the two miles from our house down the road to Jeff’s place. We clipped handfuls of lush cress from the shallow side streams that meander through the valley. The same stream flows through our land, but we are higher up so our water doesn’t diverge into low spots. Everyone is invited to see the beauty of Cress Spring Bakery on Wednesday nights, late spring through fall, and enjoy their wood-fired pizza and live music in their valley for an idyllic festival vibe 35 minutes west of Madison.
I was first introduced to ramps, or wild leeks, by my husband, Jesse, back in 2006. We weren’t married at the time, and I had just moved back to Madison from New York City. He brought a heaping load of spring vegetables back to our apartment near Camp Randall and cooked them into the most delicious omelette I had ever tasted. He told me that they didn’t grow the ramps on the farm, but they went into the woods and dug them from a huge wild patch on a neighbor's land. This year Jesse found several clusters of ramps on our own land! Our north-facing slope forested by oak and maple offer a perfect environment for these spring delicacies. We are careful not to take more than a quarter of the stand in order for our ramps to continue to propagate for years to come.
Morels. The most coveted, mysterious creature in my list of favorite wild foods. These earthy mushrooms with a meaty texture stand above any other mushroom, in my opinion. They have been elusive to me this year and have brought me to the point of whimsical frustration on several occasions in the past few weeks. I scoured our woods and even went on to the other side of our ridge to the neighbor’s land. Jesse found a few lone mushrooms at Blue Mound State Park a mile up the road from our house. We savored them in a tot soi stir-fry, but I was not satisfied. In fact, my craving grew stronger. That is what I love about foraging: you cannot control the outcome of your effort like you can in a farm setting. You have to take what nature gives you and be thankful.
When I had finally abandoned the idea of having the Trinity of Foraging this year, I decided to take a hike with a friend and fellow CSA farmer, Lauren of Raleigh’s Hillside Farm. As we walked over the rolling trails at Donald Park with my daughter, Mischa, and Lauren’s spirited farm dogs, there I spotted them. Along the side of the trail like magical treasures, over a dozen of them! Drunk with excitement, Lauren, Mischa and I gathered them, using our shirts as pouches because did not expect our outing to turn into a morel hunting expedition. And that is the joy of foraging: the feeling of gratitude for being in the right place at the right time.
With all of my favorite wild foods in my kitchen at the same time, my spirit felt higher and the pressure of the farm felt lighter, even though nothing had changed. The satisfaction of going outside of the controlled environment of the farm to seek out my vegetables is grounding and energizing. Spring does not feel complete without the methodical frenzy of the farm or the primitive search for wild foods. The farm season brings many highs and lows, but I’ve learned that turning back toward untamed nature for my food adds depth to the cycle.